``This country is no better than South Africa in its treatment of us, the aboriginal people of Australia,'' said Paul Coe, chairman of the National Aborignal and Islander Legal Service Secretariat. ``Our people are being killed one by one,'' he says. ``This policy or practice is the modern day version of genocide.'' Since 1980, an estimated 80 to 100 aborigines have died in police custody. Most deaths are officially suicides. But aborigine activists allege racist police brutality is the cause of these deaths.
The media have played up this angle. And the issue became so politically volatile that in August, Prime Minister Bob Hawke stepped in. He set up the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody to investigate and recommend solutions. Preliminary hearings began in in Canberra this week.
Privately, Commission investigators say more and more of these ``suicides'' appear to be racially motivated instances of assault - or negligence. But they emphasize it is too early to draw conclusions - hearings into individual deaths don't begin until next month.
Social scientists, just now being heard, suggest other possibilities. They say recent jail suicides could be the first evidence of an emerging aboriginal suicide problem. Or at least, the discovery in Australia of a phenomenon that has been witnessed in North America: suicides precipitated by jailing.
``There are very close parallels between the aboriginal and North American Indian suicides, which occur at high rates,'' says Joseph P. Reser, an American cross-cultural psychologist now at Australia's James Cook University. ``Australia may be seeing the beginning of what started in North America 40 years ago,'' says Dr. Reser, now studying aboriginal suicides in northern Australia.
In the United States there are more than 400 recorded jail house suicides per year. Jail suicides worldwide typically occur within 24 hours after an arrest. Alcohol nearly always is present. ``The majority of jail suicides are not ``suicidal people,'' says Lindsay Hayes, an expert at the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives, now completing his second nationwide study on the subject. Suicide results when anxiety, guilt, and a forbidding cell environment combine with a drug ``that reduces your inhibitions to do things you wouldn't normally do,'' he says.
But jail suicide rates in the US are higher among native Indians than among other groups that commit suicide in jail, and social scientists suspect the same is true of aborigines here.
Anyone abhors confinement and isolation, say some anthropologists. But for a traditional aborigine, raised in the outback and in a culture where problems are tackled in groups, not individually, being locked alone in a tiny cell can be ``double psychological'' punishment.
``Aborigines are simply not accorded the same respect or attention that a white person arrested would get,'' says a researcher at the Australian Institute of Criminology, who asked for anonymity. ``And when someone's down that low [emotionally], another kick - verbally or physically - can tip them over the edge.''
Families of aboriginal victims, as well as activists, insist police are responsible for the deaths. ``We take offense at the assumption aboriginal people [in police custody] are dying by their own hands. We reject that categorically,'' says Mr. Coe.
Anthropologists are not surprised by this view. Aborigines, now about 1 percent of Australia's population, were nearly wiped out by early settlers. Within living memory, there have been police ``massacres'' of aborigines in remote areas. And the police, as maintainers of the peace, often appear as ``the enemy'' to a society that traditionally lives, fights, and drinks in the open - not within the four walls of a home or pub.
``It would be improper to respond to such charges outside of the proper venue,'' says a spokesperson for the Queensland Minister of Police. But he adds, ``Most of the deaths in Queensland occurred in lockups operated by aborigines themselves.''
Nonetheless, police awareness of this problem has been heightened by media attention and criticism. The head of the Royal Commission, Justice James Muirhead, recently called for immediate preventive steps. Authorities should not to wait until the investigation is complete, he said.
Last month, Gerald Hand, federal minister for Aboriginal Affairs, urged state governments to quickly adopt a new code of police conduct when arresting aborigines.
The code instructs police to be more careful in handling of inebriated aborigines. This would include conducting more regular observations, removing articles of clothing that might be used in suicides, and giving legal or community workers access to detained blacks.
Last week police and aboriginal community representatives met in Sydney at the Federal Police College to discuss the code and relations between the two groups.
The increased attention apparently is starting to yield results. In the last week or two, there have been fewer deaths and more reports of suicides prevented.
Aboriginal activists in two communities just south of Sydney launched their own efforts to stop jail suicides. When an inebriated aborigine is picked up, the police will notify local volunteers. If the aborigine has committed no violent crime, he or she will be released into their custody. ``I don't say its a solution, but it's a start,'' says the program's founder Joy Williams.
The program is believed to be the first of its kind in Australia. Ms. Williams praises the support she's gotten. ``We have the aboriginal community's backing and police cooperation. Of course, without police cooperation it wouldn't work.''
US experience with practical steps to prevent jail suicides may also be useful. The issue only began to attract attention in the US about five years ago, when the crackdown on drunk driving brought an increase in jail suicides. The funding and public support for prevention policies increased as white, middle-class parents of suicide victims successfully sued cities for negligence.
Mr. Hayes says New York and Massachusetts have adopted exemplary prevention programs. Massachusetts passed a law requiring police lockups to be made ``suicide proof.'' Exposed pipes, sprinklers, and cell bars must be covered with tough, clear plastic. Cells must be constantly monitored by television cameras, listening devices, or by human observers. Also, police are being trained in suicide prevention and a computerized system to track prior arrests and suicide attempts has been set up, Hayes says.